Facebook’s changing approach to privacy has been well documented. But things could get more serious if marketers get cold feet about instant personalization.

Facebook’s early missteps with behavioral tracking have angered many consumers, but if marketers fail to take advantage of the company’s new preference sharing tools, it could all be for naught. 

According to Wired, shopping search engine Thefind has decided to avoid Facebook’s tracking technology — for fear of aggrevating users. Could others follow?

Executives at Thefind were initially drawn to Facebook’s new bevy of social tools. The prospect of tracking user behavior and learning about their preferences without having to bother them for information was highly appealing. Wired’s Ryan Singel sat in on Thefind’s strategy meetings as the company tried to deduce its strategy in tracking Facebook users:

“There are two camps,” [VP Ron] Levi told the group. “Make it as easy and
automated as possible, even at the risk of misreading, or make it more
explicit and make it harder to achieve personalization.”

Developers at the company were concerned about implementation, but generally they were excited that Facebook’s new tools would make their jobs much easier:

“When someone logs in, we will check against the top 200 stores,” [head of user interface, James]
Baicoianu offered confidently. Then at a later time, another system
running in the background would check the rest, beefing up the user’s
profile for the next time they visit.

Even better, Baicoianu added, is that the one-time Facebook login
would grant permissions to get updates on a user in perpetuity. “In the
future we would get notifications [when a user updates their page] and
add it to their favorite or recently visited stores,” Baicoianu said.”

But soon after this meeting, privacy allegations against Facebook hit a tipping point and the company revised its approach to instant personalization, the program that automatically shared user information with third party Facebook partners.

After that, Thefind scaled back its initiative. When Singel returned to talk with the company, CEO Siva Kumar informed him:

“We shouldn’t be using things that are likely to cause concern at
least until they have been resolved. At the end of last
week we made the decision to hold back.”

The decision is an interesting one. Facebook has an act first, ask questions later approach to privacy. It’s
bitten them before, but they soldier on. Namely, Facebook is currently so ingrained in the online social graph that users continue to keep their accounts active, even if they have objections to Facebook policies.

Most brands working with Facebook don’t have that luxury. If a few companies were found to abuse the tracking tools that Facebook offers, it could have intense repurcussions for their business.

A company like Thefind could quickly see those exciting new tools shift from a business bonus to
a liability. Clearly, Thefind is aware of this fact. Writes Wired:

“If you want personalization on Thefind, it is up to you, not to the
mother of all social graphs.

If you find a silk blouse at the Thefind that’s on sale at Neiman
Marcus and you want to share, you’ll need to e-mail the link to your
friends. There’s no Facebook “Like” button.

And if you want to have a list of favorite stores on Thefind, you can
do that, but you’ll have to choose your favorites stores yourself, one
by one. On Thefind’s site, not Facebook’s.

At least until Kumar and Thefind decide that Facebook has grown up a
bit.”

Of course, Thefind’s move was undoubtedly influenced by the journalist carefully
following its Facebook decisions. But brands tracking Facebook users put themselves in a potentially perilous situation. Sure, Facebook has angered people
with its new policies. But brands using the new features may be judged more harshly than the social network. Perhaps companies will be given the benefit of the doubt until the kinks are worked out. But it’s becoming clear that Facebook is not prioritizing the relationship between brands and their customers when it comes to privacy.

It will be interesting to see if brands hold off dipping their toes in Facebook’s targeting efforts until they are better tested. Because knowing more information about your customers isn’t useful if it makes them want to stop using your products.

Image: Wired